Teaching High School English Taught Me to Read Like A Writer. Here’s the Biggest Trick I Learned.

It’s a well-known, well-worn word of writing-world advice – almost a cliche at this point: The best writers are readers. This is true, of course. Without more context, though, it’s not specific enough to be useful. A decade of teaching high school English taught me a more workable version of this. The best writers don’t just read. They read like writers. And the best writers know that if you pay close attention, you can reverse-engineer much of what you love about other authors’ writing.

A common strategy among language arts teachers is to share excerpts of “mentor texts” to help students learn specific skills. Students might copy the structure or rhyme scheme of a poem. They might even mimic the punctuation of a specific sentence to harness its rhythm. My all-time favorite lesson on writing about setting centers on a 2-page, actionless chapter in the middle of Scott Simon’s book Windy City, which starts, “It was the worst – by far the worst – time of the year.” Reading this chapter, and then borrowing this opening sentence as on-ramp, has sparked hundreds of high schoolers to write brilliant, original descriptions of their own hometowns.

It’s not such a big jump from this teaching strategy to one of my favorite habits as an author: cataloguing books on Goodreads in weirdly precise categories based on what I hope to learn from them.

Goodreads allows readers to create and name their own virtual “bookshelves.” At last count my profile had 59 of these shelves, and their titles read like a vision board of what I hope readers will experience when they read my books.

There’s a shelf called Classroom Scenes Ring True and another called Dialogue Done Well, which are both pretty self-explanatory and may contain some of the same books.

The more mysteriously-named Power Packed Language shelf holds books that sizzle at the sentence level. These are the ones I’ve filled with jealous underlines and Kindle highlights of passages I wish I’d written myself.

And the shelves labeled Hard to Put Down, Satisfying Plot Arc, and Stuck in Memory might seem to mean the same thing, but don’t (though they’re all big compliments).

If you’d like to keep in touch as a fellow reader, you can find my Goodreads profile here. There’s a follow button somewhere on the page, and if you click it you’ll be able to see what I’m reading at any given time. You’ll also receive author updates, which means you’ll get one of the early previews of some big news I’ll be sharing in the upcoming months. (Insert winking smiley emoji here.)

And, while you’re on Goodreads, maybe you’ll create a few shelves of your own.

The best writers, after all, are readers.

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